NYC Unveils First-in-Nation Emergency Text Alert System

Cell phone users can opt out of some messages, but certain alerts will be mandatory.

New Yorkers will be rapidly alerted to potentially dangerous situations -- ranging from terrorist threats to impending hazardous weather -- under a new text notification program.

The new system will be automatic, unlike NotifyNYC, a citywide alert program New York launched two years ago that requires users to sign up to receive updates.

New Yorkers can expect several kinds of alerts: warnings directly from President Obama, messages about immediate safety threats and Amber Alerts about missing kids. Cell phone companies may allow customers to block some of the messages, but certain alerts must go through.

Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the program, which will be the first of its kind in the nation, Tuesday morning near the World Trade Center site.

The program is called "PLAN," which stands for the "Personal Localized Alerting Network." And the goal is to give New Yorkers instant, potentially life-saving messages and updates on emergencies.

Participation in the network is free, although mobile devices need a special chip to be compatible with the new system. Only a handful of phones have those chips now, but manufacturers have agreed to add the chip to new devices by 2012.

New Yorkers will be the first to have access to the program because of the heightened risk the city faces since 9/11, including thwarted efforts to bomb city subways in 2009 and an attempted car bombing in Times Square last year.

"Given the kinds of threats made against New York City at the World Trade Center, Times Square, and other places popular with visitors and tourists, we’ll be even safer when authorities can broadcast warnings to everyone in a geographic area regardless of where they came from or bought their phone," Bloomberg said in a statement.

The network is scheduled to be up and running by the end of the year in New York and in Washington, D.C. It will expand nationwide by mid-2012.

Even users who turn off the GPS locator technology on their phones will receive the alerts, which will be sent out to all users in range of one or more cellphone towers selected by authorities. Phones that are turned off or aren't getting any reception won't receive the messages.

Responding to privacy concerns, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said that no location or other information from the phones will be sent to authorities.

The alert plan was approved by Congress in 2006 under the Warning Alert and Response Network Act. An FCC spokesman didn't immediately respond to questions about how much the project has cost.

If it had been available, the alert system could have warned residents of two destructive tornadoes that hit Brooklyn and Queens last year, killing one woman and causing extensive property damage, Emergency Management Commissioner Joe Bruno said. Bloomberg said officials would have to be mindful of sending alerts in a way that would avoid mass panic.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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